Thursday, September 13, 2012

Books: The Tomb of Horrors

This is the third "Greyhawk Classics" novelization I have read, the other two being The Temple of Elemental Evil and Against the Giants.  Like the others, this is what I call "disposable fiction", but that's really not a bad thing.  In fact, I'm really starting to prefer the genre.  I don't have to commit myself to reading an entire series, I don't have to worry about anyone spoiling the ending for me, and I don't have to remember any of the characters' names after I'm done reading it.  Sure it's the literary equivalent of Cool Whip on a Honey Bun, but sometimes that's just what I'm in the mood for.  (Figuratively speaking.)

The writing style is just okay. Like the other Greyhawk Classics, there's nothing really memorable about the prose, but it gets the job done. I didn't see as many typos in this one as in Against the Giants, though I did see some missing punctuation here and there.  Some sentences were repetitive in a way that annoyed me. Such as: "Tears continued to roll down Kaerion's face, and he, powerless to stop it, let them fall unchallenged down his face." See, the problem with that kind of sentence is you never know if it was under-edited, or meant to sound artsy. Personally I would have eliminated the last three words, or maybe broken the whole thing up into two sentences. But then, I'm not a professional writer.

The main character is a former paladin, filled with self-loathing after his fall from grace.  The rest of the party consists of a pompous fighter, a venerable wizard, an elf ranger, a cleric of Heironeous, a multi-talented bard, and a gaggle of generic guards who serve as the book's red shirts.  Wait, you're going into one of the most trapped-filled dungeons ever devised without a rogue?  Luckily the bard has some decent rogue skills, and the wizard also keeps some appropriate spells prepared.

The ex-paladin's name is Kaerion. I'm not sure how the author intended it to be pronounced, though I'm wondering if it's an allusion to "carrion". But whenever I saw the name, I got a song stuck in my head: "Kaerion my wayward son... there'll be peas when you are done..." (True paladins always finish their peas.)  I suppose there's worse earworms; I should be thankful his name wasn't "Kallmemaybe." He was a pretty deep character, at least for this genre, with a tragic backstory gradually revealed over the course of the novel. If his character had been more shallow, the book probably would have been half the length. I've yet to play through the ToH module, but I'm guessing it must be fairly light on plot, since the book's author to felt the need to devote so many pages to characterization. But it works.

My favorite member of the party was the bard, Majandra. She was well-written and I could always relate to her motivations. Or maybe I just have a thing for red-haired, female, half-elf bards. Unfortunately, the rest of the group wasn't as fleshed-out.  Some characters were more developed than others, but few of them were much deeper than the description you'd see on a typical character sheet.  Well, one of my character sheets, anyway.

One thing Against the Giants was lacking was a decent villain. But Tomb of Horrors has an entire party of interesting baddies. We have an evil cleric, a monk (and his young apprentice), a rogue/assassin, a sorceress, a golem, and a small army of cultist minions (a.k.a. evil red shirts). The enemy party is what made this book interesting to me. The ToEE and AtG novels played out like D&D modules - the party learns of an evil, investigates the temple/dungeon/fortress, has a lot of fights, defeats a final boss, and saves the day. But in Tomb of Horrors, we follow two rival parties, both intent on facing the dungeon for different reasons.  This really makes the book more interesting, and I could easily see some readers rooting for the evil team.

It took the story a long time to get to the titular Tomb.  The party spent a large number of pages getting ready and even more time trudging through the swamp. It was an interesting journey, but I found myself wondering if the actual module also includes so much travel time, or if the author just couldn't find enough interesting things in the tomb itself to flesh out a full book.  If I remember correctly I had some similar criticisms about The Temple of Elemental Evil novelization.

But once they actually reached the tomb, I understood pretty quickly why it didn't take up more pages.  This type of dungeon might be fun as a D&D module, but as a book it would get kind of repetitive.  Constantly checking for and disabling traps does not make for an interesting read.  Still, the author managed to throw in just enough trap-wrangling to capture the feel of D&D without bogging down the story.  Fans of the module will appreciate all the gory deaths these traps cause.

I spotted a lot of the tropes you see in a typical D&D campaign.  Sometimes the characters were so genre savvy it almost broke the fourth wall.  For example, they used 10-foot poles to search for pit traps, which is something I've always heard about in classic D&D, but I'd never seen in a novel.  One of my favorite passages involved one character suggesting they all split up, and another explaining to him why you should never split the party.

For the most part, the action scenes are exciting and well done. However, there are times when the sequence of events doesn't seem to fit together right. Like when two things are happening at once, but one of the things should be taking a lot longer than the other. There's one scene in particular that really flaunts the "Talking is a Free Action" trope.  To paraphrase: "The monster is coming right at me! I only have seconds before it gets here! It's only inches away! Quick, throw me my sword! Hurry, it's almost upon me!" I'm exagerrating, but you get the idea. And not long afterwards, there's a death scene that takes the "Final Speech" trope to an almost humorous extreme. Sometimes I think reading tropes has ruined fiction for me.

The climax was predicable, and the falling action almost nonexistent, but I don't care.  The book has its flaws, but it's my favorite Greyhawk novel so far.  It's not real literature, but these books aren't meant to be true art. Let's face it, it's a novelization of a D&D module. Heck, that's probably lower on the totem pole than the comic book adaptations of movies based on video games. So I really appreciate that these authors worked as hard as they did, when they could have just transcribed the original module into a more book-like format and collected their paycheck.

Thumbs up.

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